[update 04/13/10: My TA more than redeemed himself today. He started out recitation by saying that in grading our papers, he was forced to reconsider the criteria that he’d laid out for us for writing our papers, one of which was that we should write in simple prose. He still believed that we should do this, but he wondered what the value of that might be. So we spent the entire class debating the value and lack of value in simplifying the language of these philosophers, which evolved into a wholesome discussion of relevant topics both explicitly and implicitly at hand: the difference between analytic and continental philosophy; the purpose of writing these papers; the question of audience; the difference between explaining and expressing, and how we necessarily do both while writing these papers; the cognitive process of reading and writing; motives for writing the way we do; language as a tool for contextualization; and the way certain philosophers subvert language to re-contextualize concepts. The TA was very open to our varying opinions and arguments, and it was clear that he cared about how his criteria were affecting our writing and learning. And that’s all i needed to know.]
I was deeply offended, insulted, and hurt today. I’m not sure if i should write about this publicly, but i’m so flustered and have been upset like this for the past twelve hours that i need to vent, or else i won’t be able to sleep tonight.
I wrote my first paper for Existentialism & Phenomenology class several weeks ago. I was transfixed by Heidegger’s account of death and knew that I needed to write my paper on it. One of the suggested topics involved it anyway, so i set out to write on that topic, but as i wrote the paper and re-engaged with the text, i became more interested in a different issue within Heidegger’s account of death: his characterization of death as possibility, not actuality, and the implications this might have for his entire argument. And this shift in interest—and consequently, in my argument—occurred sometime in the morning of the day it was due. In short, i procrastinated quite extensively, stayed up all night and just wrote and re-wrote like my life depended on it, panicked for fear of not even finishing on time, and then really did run out of time and was forced to cut the paper short and slap on a concluding sentence. Not surprisingly, the paper ended up being quite disorganized, and ultimately, my claims were not backed up with strong enough arguments. Had i given myself ample time, i would’ve done what i knew i had to do when i decided to change my topic: start fresh and build up my argument. But since i was irresponsible and left myself too little time, i was forced to rework what i had already written, which culminated in patching and re-patching chunks here and there, re-ordering paragraphs, removing some and adding new ones, and all of this in vain. In my effort to work with what i already had, i neglected to fully develop my argument and work out a strong line of reasoning for it. I didn’t even know if my argument was valid. I decided to just write and see if i could come up with an argument in the process. Bad, bad mistake, obviously. I always outline my argument and make sure i have it down pat before i even start writing, but i didn’t think i could do that with the time i had remaining. I probably could have if i had stopped panicking and had steadily thought things through, but there’s no use in crying over spilled milk.
After i handed in the paper, i wanted to spend the next few days revisiting my argument and trying to see if what i wrote really made sense. Of course, other classes and obligations got in the way, and soon, i forgot all about the shoddy argument.
Earlier this week, i got the paper back, graded and commented on. I got a higher grade than i expected, but it was clear from the TA’s comments that he didn’t get the point of my paper. This was seriously worrisome for me, and i couldn’t just let my argument go misunderstood, or even not understood at all, so i went back to my dorm and started tearing the paper apart. Initially, i was just writing responses to the TA’s comments, but i soon realized that there were too many missing links in my argument. Responding to these comments wasn’t gonna get me anywhere.
I knew i had to start from the beginning. I thought hard about why i ended up writing about possibility/actuality in the first place. I then remembered reading Paul Edwards’ “Heidegger and Death as ‘Possibility’,” in which he criticizes Heidegger’s characterization of death as possibility and basically says that death should not be thought of as possibility or actuality, because it is neither; it is a “total absence.” Upon reading this, i somehow came to the conclusion that death could be understood as simultaneously possibility and actuality. (I didn’t exactly arrive at this conclusion through explicit reasoning; it was more like a flash of instinct, and i knew the reasoning was hiding somewhere in my head, i just had to seek it out. This seems to happen to me a lot when i read Existential works, perhaps because i identify with their ethos on a deep level.) So the paper had been an attempt to seek out this reasoning, but the conditions in which i was working prevented me from finding it.
I had another rocky start. I was developing too many lines of argument at once, and before i could round out any of them, i’d run into a dead-end or a contradiction with other lines of argument, leaving me with no solid claim to work off of. I needed a premise in order to start somewhere, and there were no obvious premises for me to latch on to, since, after all, death is the ultimate unsolved problem, understood by none. I was still hopelessly lost, but mysteriously unshaken in my conviction that i could find the missing links and flesh out my argument. Suddenly, it all came down on me: the premise was that death was actual; the misconception (and huge misunderstanding on Edwards’ part) was that Heidegger was denying the actuality of death in characterizing it as possibility, which he most certainly was not (he was merely advocating for us to regard it as possibility*), and the conclusion was that Heidegger was giving us a framework for authentically anticipating our deaths (by regarding and approaching it as possibility) in the knowledge that death is actual. And the reason we need to care about death at all and regard it as possibility is that dying is living (because with each day we live, we come one day closer to death), and if dying were not understood as possibility, our living could not be understood as possibility either, and our lives would therefore have no meaning.
That was the outline; it came to me in the shower. It was smooth sailing from there, and i had finally written the paper that i would’ve written had i not been constrained by both the conditions generated by my procrastination and the criteria that the TA had laid out for the paper. You see, the TA wanted to use our papers as a way of gauging our grasp of the material, not as a way of seeing what we had to say about the material. This significantly constrained me as i wrote the original paper, because explaining the concepts distracted me from my goal; i was too caught up in the definitions to focus on fleshing out an argument in defense of Heidegger.
This second paper was not exactly a paper, and it most definitely wasn’t a re-write. It was a follow-up, taking for granted some of the key terms and ideas i’d already explained in the paper that was submitted. I wrote it not because i thought i could get a grade adjustment (i knew i wouldn’t, and i didn’t want one anyway; after all, i got the grade that i deserved based on the work i’d submitted), but because i wanted to find my argument once and for all, turn it into clear, illuminating prose, and share it with my TA.
So i emailed him the follow-up, my submitted paper, and the Paul Edwards essay and told him that i’d be dropping by to discuss them with him. I was hoping he’d familiarize himself with the follow-up and remind himself of what my paper was about before i showed up. I found him having lunch in his office with his door half-way open, and when i said hi to him from the doorway, he didn’t invite me inside and just continued eating. Still in the doorway, i asked him if he’d read my email, and he said he did but that he didn’t read the papers. Understandable, but disappointing nonetheless. A quick apology would have been nice, but not necessary. I worked on that follow-up for 8 hours straight on 3 hours of sleep just so i could get it to you more than 24 hours in advance of your office hours, and it was only a little over 2 pages, so it would’ve been nice if you’d had the courtesy to look it over, but i understand, you have other obligations, too. At this point, he still wasn’t inviting me to come inside and have a seat, so i was forced to invite myself in, awkwardly stand across from him eating and take out my papers, mumbling something about having ended up writing a sort of follow-up to clarify the argument i was trying to make in my paper. I finally sat down. I absolutely hate having to do this. I also don’t like to ask if i can sit down in situations like this, because by that point, i’m so offended that i don’t even want to ask for permission, but at the same time, i feel uncomfortable invading their space.
He still wasn’t saying anything, and i still felt very unwelcome, so i decided to start off with a question. “What did you think my argument was in my paper?” “I read 45 papers, i don’t remember what your argument was.” Well, don’t you think that’s why i emailed it to you before coming here, so you could remind yourself what it was and we could discuss it when i came? If you were dedicated to helping me learn, as all good TAs should be, you would’ve taken a few minutes out of your time to at least look over the paper again. So not only did i feel unwelcome, i felt like he didn’t care about my concerns or even about what i had to say. I know this might be an overreaction, but i think there’s something to be said for how standoffish he was.
Then he said that he doesn’t read re-writes; he seemed to think i was there to ask for a better grade. This insulted me, and i told him that my follow-up wasn’t a re-write, but rather, an effort to make a better argument than i did in my paper, for my own satisfaction.
He took my paper, not the follow-up, and began to point out all the things he thought was wrong with it. I normally wouldn’t have a problem with this, but i was insulted because he still assumed that i was there to argue about my grade, and he pointed out the flaws in a rather hurtful way. At a later point, he even said that it was “shitty” of me not to have mentioned Edwards in the paper. This was all the more hurtful; i didn’t have a chance to mention Edwards’ opinions because i was running out of time, and in the paper, i didn’t need to address Edwards’ ideas to make my argument anyway. I know it was entirely my fault that i was so clumsy in writing the paper, but it still hurt to be reminded of those mistakes and criticized for their repercussions by someone who didn’t know what i went through while writing it. He was attacking all the weak points in my paper when i was there for the sole purpose of sharing what i’d written in an effort to finally get at what i was trying to get at in my paper but failed to. He eventually read my follow-up, and when he simply remarked, “It’s good,” i urged him to think of any possible objections to my argument, of which he offered one: the possibility of immortality. It was really an objection to my premise (of death as being actual), not my argument, but nonetheless an important idea to consider in any extended discussion of death.
This long-winded entry was motivated by my need to vent about my uncomfortable conversation with my TA, but that isn’t my main concern. For all i know, he could have been having a bad day. He always struck me as a kind man, so his behavior today was definitely uncharacteristic of him. On the other hand, what was really demoralizing was the fact that what was expected of us was a paper that proved that we understood the philosophical ideas, not one that engaged with the ideas by making arguments about them. I don’t see how anyone could engage with ideas in such a way without understanding them in the first place, and that’s unfortunately the point i didn’t get across to my TA. But i’m hoping to make this point with my final paper.
*It should be noted that Heidegger doesn’t define possibility in the way we normally do, a thing that may happen or be the case; he defines it as an object of our intentional projection, i.e., something which we knowingly strive at. Actuality, by contrast, would be something we are “thrown” into, some state or condition in which we find ourselves.